End of Story 

Over two years ago, I met someone with whom I developed a strong and strange friendship. It was never a romantic thing, and probably had some resonance from past experience. I had spent a fair bit of time with this person, and did my best to do what I could to help him in a time of need. Last year our time together came to an end with arguments and hurt feelings, along with a feeling of betrayal and unanswered questions.

I spent a lot of time afterwards wondering what happened, why, what if, etc., etc.. I wanted answers, and thought that if I had them, I’d feel better. Too much time spent in the story of what happened drew me down a dark path that took a while to reverse. It wasn’t until I dropped the story line and the unanswered questions, and simply recognized and accepted the feelings and held them in awareness, that the wounds healed in time. The story line eventually dropped, and I moved on. All things that are of the nature to arise are of the nature to cease.

I also had the opportunity to reconnect with other healthier relationships and to be reminded of how they feel as well. I’ve been in a much more peaceful mental space for a while now.

From this stable ground I recently encountered this person again. In the interest of reconciliation, I thought it might be a chance to exchange perceptions of what happened, and to be honest, hoped to receive some sort of an apology.

Neither were provided.

The same dynamics that plagued the friendship in the past have continued, and I’m not terribly surprised. The pleasant surprise is that my involvement in the answers (and the person) is not there anymore. I no longer feel the need to know what happened. The clinging to “why” isn’t present, and neither my happiness nor peace are dependent upon the answers.

Sharing perceptions of what happened for both of us would have been a step towards true reconciliation, and it’s a bit sad that this will not take place. There is a shallow détente now, but nothing more. I wish him well and will continue to be kind, but the true friendship and trust are no longer there.

Instead I’ve reconciled myself, and I’ve moved on to a healthier place. As memories or emotions appear, I’m continuing the same process that my teachers have given me: feeling the feelings in the body, accepting them, and riding the wave with awareness as the feeling passes.

The answers to what happened last year will most likely never transpire. I’m no longer counting on them. The reconciliation has happened with the feelings involved, even if it hasn’t been with the relationship in which they arose. The story line continues to fall away, and my own sense of peace has emerged from the rubble.

That’s all the answer I need.

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Alaska Inside Passage Cruise: The Good, the Bad, and the Amazing

Please don’t judge. For my final travel hurrah for a while, I went on a cruise. I can plead that it wasn’t my idea, but I did have a great time, regardless, and am thankful that my family members prompted me to visit such an amazing region.

I went with my son, daughter in law, and her parents on a week long cruise through the inside passage of Alaska, and enjoyed it immensely. The scenery was fantastic, and being on a cruise ship wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be. Gambling, formal events and drinking alcohol are not on my lists of ‘fun things to do’, so I had imagined I’d feel quite out of place (on the ship, not with family members). But being in nature, spending time with family, and learning about new places are quite enjoyable, and that’s definitely what happened.

I arrived separately in Vancouver, BC, and had time to explore the huge ship on my own before we set sail. A city in miniature; the ship had fifteen floors, several dining rooms, a gym, pools, hot tubs, a casino, a theater, and more, with a capacity to house 2600 passengers and 1100 crew members. One could get lost, and occasionally I did.

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Inside the ship

Setting sail introduced a peculiar sensation of gentle rocking which took some getting used to, but with acupressure wrist bands, nothing that produced sea-sickness. We stayed at sea for that evening and the next day, and after 24 hours the bands weren’t even necessary. So I was able to enjoy the delicious food, and comfortably spend time with family on board. While drinking and gambling were the agenda for some, there were plenty of other things for us to do on board. Our group attended trivia contests (winning twice) and enjoyed lectures from Libby Riddles (first woman to win the Iditarod) and Susan Marie Conrad, who kayaked solo for 1000 miles along the inside passage. I also enjoyed walking around the promenade deck, absorbing the scenery and the salty sea air.

Our first port was Ketchikan. Its name, derived from Kich-xaan, comes from the first Tlingit inhabitants. It’s located on Revillagigedo Island, and is only accessible by sea or air. The climate is temperate rainforest, although we had no rain during our visit. I started out early to see a bit of the town and was not disappointed. Taking the City Walk, I traipsed through historical areas of Creek St. (formerly the location of the city brothels, now a shopper’s haven) and the harbor, and then slogged uphill to the Totem Museum to view traditional carved totem poles from the native Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures.

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Houses near Creek Street

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Walking back downhill I visited the peaceful city park and the salmon ladder next to waterfalls of Ketchikan Creek. Hundreds of salmon waited their turn at the bottom of the falls, summoning the energy to make successive leaps up to the top, and back to their spawning grounds.

Watch salmon jump up the waterfall

I would have loved to spend more time meandering, but we were scheduled for a kayaking trip. We boarded a bus to Clover Pass, north of the town, and were given gear and instruction, then loaded into kayaks. Setting off for a trip around the Eagle Islands, we saw tidal sea life, eagles, and a brief glimpse of a whale. The waters were calm, and the trip was enjoyable. All the kayaking practice I had in Desolation Sound was rewarded: my son and I were doubled, and we often found ourselves ahead of the group. A fast stroke pace gave us time to take lots of pictures while waiting.

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Starfish on the rocks
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Breakfast

We had just enough time to get back to the ship before departing for the next port of call, and we arrived in the state capital of Juneau the next morning. This time we started off the day with a trip to a dog mushers’ camp. These camps provide food and exercise for the dogs during off season, and a learning experience for the visitors, and a chance to snuggle with puppies as well. We learned about the life of an Iditarod racer (not easy!) and about the dogs themselves. Most visitors to Alaska think of the sled dogs as being fluffy dogs like Malamutes or Siberian Huskies. These are a different breed; leaner, and while somewhat fluffy, not as much as one expects. They love to work. The teams would howl and bark whenever they weren’t pulling the wheeled “sleds” that pulled the tourists, and we learned that they had to be trained not to wear themselves out.

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Ready to go

 

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Alaskan Rainforest

 

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And they called it…puppy luuuuuv

I had heard that the Mendenhall Glacier was a “don’t miss” experience. While there are buses happy to take tourists there for a limited time and $40, one can take the public bus for $4 round trip, be dropped off 1.5 miles from the visitor center, and take as long as one wants to walk the trails and view the glacier. There are no trails that go directly to the glacier from the visitor center, so I opted for the trail to Nugget Falls that offered spectacular views and a lovely walk.

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Mendenhall Glacier
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Nugget Falls with Mendenhall in the background

Our last port of call was Skagway, an historic town with a year-round population of under 1200 people. Judging by the amount of stores in town, its main source of income appears to be tourism. There’s the historic Red Onion Saloon and the Skagway Museum, which tell the story of Skagway’s involvement with the Gold Rush era, and then there are more shops than you can shake a stick at. We walked around for a bit, but I found nothing that I, or anyone I know truly needed. So after lunch I found the Dewey Lake Trail, and hiked to Reid Falls and around Dewey Lake through a quiet forest. Heaven.

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Dewey Lake
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The harbor from above

Staying on the ship, we visited Glacier National Park and College Fjord, watching glaciers calve and marveling at the scenery.

Watching a glacier calve is a bittersweet experience; it’s an amazing scene to watch a mighty chunk of ice break off into the water, yet knowing that the glaciers are shrinking, it’s tough to watch that process occur before one’s very eyes.

Which leads to…the bad.

A minor annoyance were the sales pitches. To badly paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that any passenger in possession of a cruise ticket must be in want of some jewelry. At least that’s how it seemed. There were several jewelry shops on board the ship, onboard announcements of jewelry sales, and presentations and advertisements of stores at ports of call. Apparently someone is buying it though, as I’m sure they wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t such a money generator for them.

More serious though, are the negative effects of cruise travel. I had heard of the environmental impact that cruise ships impart onto the places they visit. After returning home, I was hoping that I could find some information that would tell me that this wasn’t as bad as I had heard. If all of these 2600 passengers took plane flights to these places, wouldn’t it be worse environmentally than being together on a ship? Sort of like a floating bus? Sadly, no. By carbon emissions alone, a cruise passenger releases roughly twice as much carbon per mile as an air passenger (Data from this article). In addition, there are other issues with wastewater release, sulfur emissions, ship noise, and bilge water as well. While many cruise lines are working to lessen the damage which their ships cause, they’ve still got a long way to go.

The other issue I found was the working conditions for employees on board. Those in the service sectors are often hired from developing countries and paid less for long hours and minimal time off. While they may earn more than they would in their own country, and there is no shortage of applicants, it still appears to be a “sweat shop at sea” in many cases.

I realize that it’s rather hypocritical of me to spout these statistics after I’ve gone on the cruise. I’m sorry. Would I go on another one? No, probably not. One of the things taking the cruise has done is to create a greater interest in the environment of the places I visited. I am grateful that I had an opportunity to visit this beautiful landscape, and hope to do a better job of protecting it in the future. This region is amazing, and I hope it will remain so for generations to come.

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Desolation….or not

About a year ago, I was talking with a good friend of mine that had settled on Cortes Island, in British Columbia. She was planning a kayaking trip in Desolation Sound with Ajahn Viradhammo, the abbot of Tisarana Buddhist Monastery. Dhamma and kayaking together? Where do I sign up? So I recently joined some friends in Canada for some kayaking and camaraderie. Ajahn Viradhammo gave several talks and wise teachings in this smaller group setting. Several “Cortesian” friends generously offered the use of their homes to our group, and we spent a relaxing week enjoying the atmosphere. The surrounding scenery was truly awe-inspiring, and led to a quiet stillness.


Following this, we went on a kayaking trip on Desolation Sound, east of Cortes. We loaded a mountain of gear into a mix of double and single sea kayaks, and set course for across the sound to the Martin islands.

All of this gear did eventually fit inside these kayaks. With room for ten people as well!
 

Landscapes that looked so far away from the shore of Cortes soon became more familiar. We set up our base camp, and over the next few days explored the Curme islands and Kinghorn Island.


We enjoyed spotting seals, deer, and numerous eagles, and took advantage of warm enough weather and water to go for a swim on most days. The cooler water was a welcome relief for sore muscles, and was clear enough to spot starfish and other sea life below.


Our return trip was a little more challenging. The sound crossing was pretty choppy with winds at 12-15 knots and waves crashing over our kayaks at times (yay for spray skirts!). Yet the kayaks felt secure, and paddling through the waves was quite fun, even if we did feel like we were still at sea for a few days after our return.

During a weekend retreat in Victoria the following weekend, Ajahn Viradhammo recounted how Luang Por Sumedho would describe an event as a “peak experience “; acknowledging that something was enjoyable, yet subtly pointing to its effervescent nature without being a downer. I would definitely describe this trip as a peak experience, and am thankful to Ajahn Viradhammo, my friend Sobhana, and many others who made it possible.

On the Nanaimo Trail

I’m heading north to Cortes Island, in British Columbia, Canada, and spent the weekend in Nanaimo. Nanaimo is a harbor town on Vancouver Island, and home to the famous Nanaimo Bar.

What’s a Nanaimo Bar, you ask? An amazing, three layered desert: start with a base of graham cracker crumbs, chocolate, nuts, and sometimes more, add a layer of custard frosting, then a layer of chocolate on top. Not for either the faint of heart, or those who are diabetic.

Having encountered one of these in Canada nearly ten years ago, and because the town was on the way, I decided to spend some time eating Nanaimo bars in Nanaimo. And Nanaimo bar cheesecake, ice cream, latte’s, etc.

It’s not all Nanaimo bars. There’s a walkable downtown area that extends to a beautiful harbor. It’s a bit sleepy: when I arrived around 6 on a Friday evening, only a few restaurants and bars (none of the shops) were open, and the next morning only a few places were open before ten.

The parks, however, were beautiful. When I wasn’t consuming Nanaimo bar related items, I found myself walking through forests, either in Bowen park or Newcastle island. The beauty of Pacific Northwest forests, and the smells of damp, green earth, cedars in the sun, and the salty sea made for some beautiful walks. Good thing, after eating all those Nanaimo bars!

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Not Sure

When I arrived at Abhayagiri five months ago, I had a plan. I was going to stay there indefinitely, and all was going to go perfectly.

As I’ve heard in the past, “If you want to make the universe laugh, just develop a plan”.

As I stayed here, I was reminded that my plan was not necessarily the plan of the community. It would remain to be seen whether it would work out to have me stay. And on my end, as I learned what living in a large community entailed, there was some wavering. Was this what I really wanted? Could I fit in to this large group and lifestyle? But in time I began to feel the strength of the community, and the benefit of living and practicing within it. Once again, I felt a firm resolve to stay put. I had a plan.

Despite the fact that everything around us is constantly changing, the mind clings to the idea of certainty, to safety. The habit is in our DNA, to ensure the continuity of the species. And yet, the very clinging for safety, the constant planning, the gripping to the “sure thing”, causes stress. There’s no end to it. It’s like walking up an icy hill, scrambling for purchase that isn’t there. Or, as in one of my favorite movies, The Christmas Story, like Ralphie scrambling up the slide to try to get what he wants from Santa Claus (Watch here).

Ajahn Chah, the founder of the tradition which Abhayagiri follows, used to frequently say “Mae Naer” or, “Not sure”. No matter how much control we think we have over what happens, it’s not sure. Even the thoughts we have in our mind, and their validity – not sure. The validity of the contents of this blog? Not sure.

Intellectually it makes sense that all is changing, and that what I think to be true may not be. Yet in actuality it’s been a more challenging practice to incorporate. I like to be in control. Who doesn’t? Yet I’m reminded over and over again that I’m not. Despite scrambling for purchase on the slide of life and occasionally reaching the top again, the foot of reality says “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid”, and I’m once again going for a ride.

In my life, change has struck again. While I will be returning to Abhayagiri for a few weeks after this coming trip to Canada, I won’t be staying there as originally planned. Instead, I’ll be spending some time with my parents in Pennsylvania. I’m ok with this new plan, and it feels like the right thing to do right now. And maybe, just maybe, it’s not so much a plan, as just accepting what is, right now. 

Be well and peaceful dear readers, and in the words of Ajahn Sona, another teacher in this tradition….

“Don’t worry. Everything is perfectly out of control”.

Groundhog Day, Over and Over Again

I’ve been here at Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery since the end of
December. Nestled in the hills of Mendocino County California,
the monastery is in the Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada
Buddhism. I’ve been visiting here since 2012, and continue to
return for the community and the abbot, Ajahn Pasanno.

Each year from the beginning of January to April 1st, the
community of monks and lay residents put their regular duties
aside (at least, mostly) and go on silent retreat. During this time, a
crew of volunteers arrives to take over the general duties of the
monastery; cooking, maintenance, office work, book requests,
etc.. I’ve been one of those volunteers for the last three months.
For those that read my blog last year from Tisarana, or my blog
from two years ago, it’s roughly the same scenario. A day in the
life of a retreat support member goes something like this….

Is it really 4AM already?

I crawl out of bed and get ready to start the day with morning
puja in the meditation hall. Since the monastery is located on a
hillside, I walk down the hill from the women’s building and up
and down another hill to reach where I need to go. It’s a ten
minute walk, which helps to add some wakefulness.

I quietly walk into the meditation hall after removing my shoes
outside, set up my seat, and bow to the shrine. It’s not as if I think
the shrine is actually the Buddha. I’m bowing to symbolism of the
awakened mind, the teachings that lead to it, and those who are
on the path.

At 5AM, the puja starts with chanting in Pali (the ancient language
similar to Sanskrit in which the Buddha’s teachings were
recorded) and English for about 20 minutes, then continues for an
hour of mediation. Afterwards I perform my morning chore which
is usually some sort of cleaning and checking messages, until the
bell rings for breakfast. It’s usually oatmeal, with the usual
breakfast beverages.

After breakfast cleanup, my fellow crew members and I start the
day with our appointed tasks.

I’m in the kitchen today, and my job, with two other members, is
to prepare a meal for over thirty people in less than three hours
with whatever food is in the fridge and pantry. All the groceries
are donated, and there’s not always exactly what you want for a
particular recipe. It’s sort of like an episode of “Chopped”: You
have these ingredients. Make something good out of them in a
certain period of time. Thanks to the generosity of many donors,
and the skill of the cooking crew, it’s usually a pretty good meal.

After lunch and cleanup, the retreat schedule has varied,
sometimes with scheduled group afternoon meditation,
sometimes with free time to practice on one’s own.

Today there’s free time, and it’s not cold and raining (surprisingly
it’s been cold and rainy quite frequently, and we’ve even had
snow a few times), so a good time to take a walk. I slowly climb
nearly a thousand feet up to the nearby ridge, to observe the
damage caused by last summer’s fires. The fires came through
and destroyed much of the forests and the nearby town, yet the
monastery was mainly untouched. If you look for the monastery
on Google Earth, there are already updated photos showing the
extent of the damage.

At 6:30pm we meet for a question and answer period, or a
reading, and then evening puja at seven. It’s pretty much the
same as morning puja, with slightly different chanting. After puja
is over, I walk back up the hill to the women’s section, and after
some reading, go to bed to do it again the next day.

The schedule is mostly the same. Every. Single. Day. One looses
track of time: What’s the date? What day of the week is it?

About once a week on lunar observance days we stay up
practicing until 3AM (if we’re not working the next day), and
during the retreat, the crew have regular days off. But the routine,
even though it’s not one I’d necessarily follow at home, is
somehow helpful. The mind comes up with enough things in
meditation (and in general) that provide all the “interesting” one
needs.

I’ve found some peace here, and space to hold what comes up in
life and in the mind. So for now I’ll stay here a while if the
community will allow me to do so, and see where life takes me.

I’ve volunteered to stay to help with the new library here,
something I had hoped two years ago that I’d be able to work on.
It means transferring the books to new shelves, reorganizing them
to a better cataloging system, and eventually entering the Library
of Congress information for all the books into a computer with
library software. No small task, since there are thousands of
books, but one I’ll enjoy working on.

I don’t know how long I’ll be here. I have a trip planned in June
and another in August, and hope to return here between them.
But I’m feeling easier about not having much of a plan, and just
being here now, every day, over and over again.

Be well and peaceful.

Walking The Big Black Dog

I haven’t written any new posts for a while for a few reasons. The first being that I was
spending time with family during the holidays, and not really doing any blog-worthy,
“touristy” things. Which was just fine.
The second reason was that for most of the time since my last post I was wrapped in a
funk that was tough to shake off. I couldn’t really see the point of writing, or of anything
in general. The things I usually enjoyed held little interest, nor did I have the energy to
take part in them. I walked around feeling like I was wearing one of those lead aprons
you wear during X-rays. Most of the time I spent wanting to stay in bed, curled up in a
ball. While I don’t drink, I could see the appeal. Everything was just…meh.
After I left Tisarana Monastery in Canada, I had a lot of time on my hands to ruminate
over a recent loss and betrayal of friendship. Instead of continuing the work with
feelings that came up, I used the spare time to distract myself: watching movies,
surfing the net, reading, eating tons of holiday sweets, and just hanging out.
I was walking “The big black dog” (as Winston Churchill called it) of depression. I hid it
from my family (although no longer, as they follow this blog) because who wants to be
a downer during the holidays? But there it is.
I also struggled with sharing it with others because there’s this held perception that as
a Buddhist, if someone is “doing well” in their practice, then they won’t have any
depressed thoughts. Like we’re all supposed to be shiny, happy people, 24-7.
It was good to spend time with family and friends though, and it kept me going. Having
people around you who love and support you goes a long way.
I also had the chance to talk with a few Buddhist friends and discovered that they too,
on occasion, had dealt with the same issues – even friends who have practiced for
years. Discovering the shared difficulty and shattering the perception of a “perfect
practitioner” was immensely helpful. I wasn’t alone after all, despite what the mind was
telling me.
At the end of the year, I returned to Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery to help with the
winter retreat. I’m now on the retreat schedule of increased meditation, and have been
tweaking my practice by including more body awareness, and refraining from investing
in the stories that depression tells the mind (at least sometimes). It does help. I’m
finding that Buddhist practice isn’t a guarantee against depression, but it gives me
great tools to work with it. I’ve also been walking more, doing more yoga practices,
taking vitamin B12, using a SAD light, and ruminating less (mostly).
Also key has been remembering that this is not “me”. It’s a “tropical depression” in the
sky of who “I” am, of time and space. It won’t last forever, and is passing through at its
own speed.

All of the things above have helped, and while I wouldn’t say I’m back to being a
“shiny, happy person” (if that truly exists), the forecast now is fair to partly sunny. I find
myself laughing a bit more often, and am at least more peaceful. I’ll take it for now.
My next post will be about the monastery where I’m staying, and what I’m currently
doing. But for now, I wanted to share what had been going on. I almost didn’t make
this post, but I decided that there’s strength in sorrow shared. If there’s someone out
there that can benefit from knowing that they’re not alone, then it’s worth having
people know I’m not perfect.
Ok, you probably knew that already, but it’s tough to drop the ideal sometimes. Thanks
for bearing with me.
Be well and…peaceful.